Why I moved from teaching to social work

Paul O’Shea tells the TLE why he became a social worker…

Prior to starting Frontline, I enjoyed a stimulating career as a teacher for 35 years, spending the last 13 as principal of an inner-London college. All teachers carry affection for their students, but I’d always had a special regard for those who had developed the resilience to overcome difficulty and disadvantage. Often they had managed this with some professional intervention, in the home and community, and I’d been intrigued and impressed by the social workers that I’d come across in that time. Frontline presented me with the opportunity to work with these young people at the other end of the school day, in their home and family.

There is some overlap between teaching and social work in the skills of assessment, planning and motivating change in behaviour – for both parents and children. But helping families improve both the awareness and functioning of their relationships meant I had to learn new insights and techniques. Almost all of my teaching career had been spent with late teenagers, so I was also absorbed by the challenges of talking to much younger children to be able to understand their worlds, their anxieties and their hopes for change.

Sometimes the work is frustrating, and the pace of change within families and in the agencies that they are involved with, can be slower than we would wish. However, helping people – of all ages – to strengthen their confidence and ability to make positive change for their children, and supporting them so they are more equipped to deal with tough and enduring adversities, is just as rewarding as anything I’d ever achieved in the classroom.

What might seem “little victories” to us can often have great significance for young people. Once, I persuaded one hard-pressed Mum to shift her cleaning work from one part of London to another – and helped her in the research and negotiation involved in that. This massively reduced the caring responsibilities that her older teenage daughter carried for her pre-school brother because of the saved travelling time. Weeks after we closed that case she texted me to say that was the change that allowed her to get to on the art college and programme that she’d always wished for.

Winning charity bids, winning arguments with neglectful landlords, with reluctant relatives, or sometimes with teachers that are beginning to lose patience gives you a boost and reminds you that often children suffer harm in families because the child and the family as a whole has lacked the advocacy required for change to happen. You will help and challenge parents to change so that their children can benefit, but sometimes you also have to create change in the immediate environment that the whole family inhabits.

Good social work is a collective professional endeavour. From the beginning I have appreciated the emphasis on strong team work and shared thinking about analysis and strategy for family work. Positive feedback from the families with which we work is a strong motivator for me, but so is the stimulation and encouragement that you can get from professional interaction with peers in the field, in the office, and across the network. Social work is “social”; you can’t do it in isolation.


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